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Prisons: Do They Work?


“A society should be judged not by the way it treats its outstanding citizens, but by the way it treats its criminals,” wrote the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Frequently quoted in closing remarks of various documents written by prison-reformists, activists, and politicians (Vinitsky, 2019; White, 2017), this statement reveals the symbolic significance of the ways in which a society deals with those who break the law. For centuries, physical immobilization—namely, imprisonment—has been society’s main solution for punishing those who have violated the laws (Rubin, 2018). Prisons’ longevity, however, does not preclude another, perhaps more important, question: Does it work?

To answer this question, one must first clarify what it means that something “works.” According to Oxford Dictionary, a system “works” if it operate(s) or functions properly or effectively.” (“Work, v.”, 2022) In other words, a system works when it achieves its intended purpose. However, whether prison achieves its intended purpose is complicated. Whose purposes are being considered? Do their interests align or contradict each other? Therefore, one must ad- dress an unstated yet crucial component to the question: Does prison work, and for whom? Such a complex social institution involves multiple social actors, such as the government, prisoners, and non-incarcerated citizens. We must then thoroughly understand what purposes prisons are intended to have, and whose interests they serve—or fail to serve. In this essay, I will address two dominant schools of thought to analyze whether prison works:

  1. The humanitarian rationale that prisons are meant to reform prisoners for the greater good of society
  2. The Post-Modernists’ belief that prisons exist as a method of control for the ruling party

I argue that the question “Does prison work?” defies a simplistic and absolute yes or no answer. The answer depends on the perspective. Therefore, I contend that, from the prisoners’ standpoint, the prison does not work whereas from the sovereignty’s perspective, the prison works perfectly.

In what follows, evidence regarding prisons will be presented. Then, I will show that the same evidence can be interpreted differently so that one can arrive at contradictory conclusions based on the theoretical foundations mentioned above.

Status Quo of Prisons in Contemporary Society

Scholars have long studied modern prisons. Three main areas of findings are summarized here. First, thousands of US prisons face scarcity for food and other commodities, fueling a thriving market to trade for these commodities using illicit drugs as a currency (Margulies, 2022). For instance, during the pandemic, marijuana and meth were still imported into Texas prisons in even greater abundance than normal times (Mccullough, 2021). Illicit drugs have evolved to be widely consumed and traded in modern prisons.

Second, during incarceration, prisons provide an environment for prisoners to “learn criminal habits or develop criminal networks” (Stemen, 2017). Prisoners share experience and form gang networks, which continue to influence their behaviors after their release. This peer effect in pris- ons could increase a prisoner’s recidivism rate by 33% (Weiman, 2007).

Lastly, the recidivism rate, typically measured when an emancipated prisoner re-offends the law after release, is incredibly high in some countries (Bagaric, & Alexander, 2011). For example, the United States possesses the highest recidivism rate in the world at approximately 70% within the first five years of release (Benecchi, 2021). During their sentence, prisoners often have little to no access to job skills programs. The limited courses are taught by fellow prisoners who have little teaching experience (George, 2017). Those who have been released from the huge prison population after a long prison term can struggle to reintegrate into the ever-changing technology-oriented society (Weisz-Lipton, 2022). More importantly, people with criminal records have a 50% less chance to receive a callback from employers, stripping many of the opportunity to find a source of income (Pager, 2003). Prisoners thus face tremendous social barriers to reintegrate into society (Madhusudan, 2018).

These data and facts, however, do not directly present an argument. They have to be interpreted to examine whether prison works and to whose interests.

The Humanitarian View of Prison

From the humanitarian standpoint, prisons are intended to rehabilitate the prisoners who have violated the social contract (Pollock, n.d.). Philosophers such as Hegel have proposed that incarceration should be a process of “re-education” (Hegel,1896, cited in Flechtheim 1947), transforming a prisoner through rehabilitation into a productive member of society. However, the listed evidence reveals that these goals may be Utopian ideals and therefore difficult to achieve. In this regard, the prison fails its prisoners in most cases.

First, prisons have insufficient “re-education” effects and may even lead to worse living circum- stances for prisoners after release. As shown above, scarce opportunities to abysmal courses pro- vide little for the “re-education” of prisoners (George, 2017). With no new skills acquired and an abundance of social barriers, such as technological difficulties and unemployability (Weisz-Lipton, 2022; Couloute & Kopf, 2018), awaiting for them in society, former prisoners are compelled to return to illicit engagements, thus debilitating any potential rehabilitative effects prisons have on prisoners (Berg & Huebner, 2011).

Furthermore, prisons’ social environment is criminogenic instead of reformative. Evidence from the current prison system suggests that prisons act as a platform to connect criminals, essentially similar to how social media connects people with similar hobbies, reinforcing their criminal behavior (Stemen, 2017; Weiman, 2007). Illicit drugs have also infiltrated many prisons as a sort of currency for trading commodities and consuming (Mccullough, 2021). Thus, the system infrastructure tends to produce more drug abusers and criminals instead of reforming them into law-abiding citizens. These problems provide yet another explanation for the high recidivism rate, which by itself serves as an indicator for the failure of prison’s rehabilitation efforts, testifying to the metaphor of prisons as a “revolving door” rather than a rehabilitative facility.

One might point out the success of the Norwegian prisons with a recidivism rate of merely 20% as a counter example (Benecchi, 2021). However, the Scandinavian country spends 90,000 dol- lars, triple the amount US spends, to provide shelter and counseling service for its 3000 prisoners (Pervana, 2019). Moreover, Norway is one of only a few countries in the world with developed social welfare programs, low rates of inequality, and high social homogeneity, all of which work together to build this rare case of success in the correctional system (Sharma, 2015). Put otherwise, Norwegian prisons are not the norm but the exception.

In short, contemporary prisons neither reform nor rehabilitate. Their high recidivism rates show that they do not fulfill their humanitarian purposes for the betterment of prisoners. In the next section, I will show how, for the exact same reasons, modern prisons are an ongoing success from the post-modernists’ perspective.

The Post-Modern View of Prison

John Locke stated that governments exist as part of the social contract to “protect the rights of the people and promote the public good,”; those who have violated the contract are eligible to be punished by the government (Tuckness, 2020). Prisons are an extension or a tool of the government to uphold its side of the contract. This necessity of prisons to governments has brought forth the idea that prisons function as “disciplinary method” for the sovereign power.

The most influential theory on the purpose of prison as exerting disciplinary power on the population is offered by the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. In his classic, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault traces the historical development and mech- anisms of prisons and argues that there is a different way to view prisons’ purposes. Contrary to the humanitarian theory, he contends that prisons are created to produce “delinquents” (Foucault, 1991). Similarly, other post-modernists propose prisons as a tool to quell dissident voices, all of which serves the sovereign power (Walker et al., 2000). What happens when prisons are examined against this criterium?

While the social stigma against ex-prisoners, the criminogenic effect of prisons, and the high re- cidivism rate fail the humanitarian belief, these phenomena are precisely why, from a Foucauldian perspective, prisons are succeeding: They produce “delinquents,” namely, a class of people who consistently commit crime. Emancipated prisoners are unable to find employment or reintegrate into society, compelling them to reenter crime—“[the] delinquents remain so” (Foucault, 2009, p.22). The prison “creates a criminal milieu” that breeds more criminals (Droit, 1975). Ultimately, these factors cause people to leave prisons, commit crimes, and return, achiev- ing the high recidivism rate and reproducing delinquency. As Foucault concludes, “this production [of prisons] is not a mark of its failure but of its success” (Foucault, 2009, p.21). But how so?

Delinquents serve important purposes for the sovereign power. First, when consistent crimes are carried out by delinquents, it is “easier to place it under surveillance” (Foucault, 2009, p.21). The social stigma ensures that the delinquents remain isolated. Focusing on the “target population” is a more efficient governing method than monitoring everyone. For example, China has built a huge biological identifiers database, not only for formerly and currently incarcerated people, but for minorities as well (Myre, 2021). With criminal records and complex systems of surveillance, the government can easily monitor and control those who have committed crimes and those who are deemed most likely to do so in the future. Second, the presence of delinquents generates political profits. When delinquents eventually come “into conflict with the mass of the population” due to their criminality, this conflict becomes a constant “target of power” (Foucault, 2009, p.21). For instance, politicians constantly utilize the delinquents’ presence as campaign goals (Holian, 2004). Prevalent criminal activities make the “permanent presence of the police” more acceptable at the “very heart of the population” (Foucault, 2009, p. 21). In short, delinquents’ presence grants the ruling class political legitimacy and resources for surveillance. Producing delinquents “is what has been asked of them[prisons]” (Droit, 1975).

Contrary to what Locke and classical theories state, the prison has evolved to be an “instrument for the reorganization of the field of illegalities” (Foucault, 2009, p.22). Instead of killing to rule, the sovereign power can now resort to prisons as a mechanism to define illegality politically and maintain civil obedience in the name of legality and justice. In The Real War On Crime, Donziger argues that prisons are a tool for political “magic” which disposes of the undesirable and the dissident (Donziger, 1996). The “War on Drugs” is a case in point (Rhodes, 2001; Eisen, 2016). It is a long-established political belief in certain US administrations that the “danger” to society is located in the “African American and other men of color” (Parenti, 2008). Consequently, African Americans have been arrested for drug violations much more often than White citizens even though the usage between the two population is almost identical. The marginalized group thus disproportionally make up over half of the US prison population. Additionally, it disenfranchises one in thirteen African American voters (“The Drug War”, 2018). In a sense, prisons are the “New Jim Crow,” effectively silencing and removing those deemed undesirable (Parenti, 2008). Other comparable examples could be found in China where the government maintains authoritarian order by detaining over 7,000 political prisoners in incarceration and out of the public’s sight (“Political Prisoner”, 2021).

As a governing tool, prisons are effective at silencing unfavorable voices and providing various political benefits for the state. In short, from the standpoint of exercising sovereign power, prisons are doing exactly what they are meant to do, though they may seem to be “failing” to rehabilitate prisoners from a humanitarian-reformist perspective.


In this essay, the merits of the two schools of thought regarding prisons’ purpose and functioning are analyzed with examples. Both are legitimate ways to judge prisons’ efficacy. Thus, the question “Does prison work?” can only be answered by nuanced analysis that considers and interprets prisons’ purposes from more than one perspective. While the humanitarian purpose of prisons is thwarted, the post-modernist goal is achieved.


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